What's old is new again: increasing numbers of local markets and farmers are embracing the tradition of organic food

To outsiders, Seattle has a reputation: a place full of tree huggers, the politically liberal, environmentalists and the like. But it's also been deemed a city where folks not only care about politics and the environment, but about their bodies and what they put into them.

But is it true?

If you look at the number of farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores that are either certified organic or feature organic choices, indeed it is. But why is organic food so popular?

Most agree, it's the type of people who live here: "forward-thinking people," some say.

While eating organic may be expensive and a little frivolous to some Seattleites, more people are spending a few extra bucks to fill themselves up with all things natural.

"My health is more important than some Twinkie," said Don Wilson, owner and chef of the Sterling Café in Ravenna, the only certified organic restaurant in the state and one of only a few in the country. Every single dish Wilson serves - with a very rare exception, he said - every ingredient he uses is organic.

According to a study done by the Organic Trade Association, the United States' overall food sales have grown between 2 and 4 percent since 1997, while organic sales have increased between 17 and 21 percent.

"I think it's a return to sanity," said Diana Crane, community and public relations manager for PCC Natural Markets.

"Organic food was the norm up until 25 or 30 years ago" before companies started mass producing and genetically altering food, and healthy eating was replaced by convenience, she said.

In addition, people are always looking for ways to improve their health without drugs, and organic diets can be just what the doctor ordered, Crane said.

Becoming organic

Although final retailers are generally not required to be certified (many still choose to do so), organic farmers must abide by certain standards before they get the the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) stamp of approval.

The Organic Foods Production Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required the USDA to develop national standards for organically produced agriculture. The act states that products labeled organic must originate from farms certified by a state or other entity that has been accredited by the USDA - in this case, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).

The regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge and most synthetic substances.

Crops must be raised without pesticides, petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. In addition, animals raised organically must be fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Products labeled 100-percent organic must contain only organically produced ingredients, while products simply labeled "organic" must contain at least 95-percent organically produced ingredients. These two categories can display the USDA organic seal.

Products that contain at least 70-percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients"but may not use the sticker.

Products containing less than 70-percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" other than to identify a specific ingredient.

To become a certified organic farmer in Washington, one must submit an application to WSDA, including information about the history of the land and an organic plan that includes practices and substances used in production, and applicants must describe monitoring practices to ensure the plan is implemented.

On-site inspections are conducted, and once certified, the farmer is subject to annual inspections.

The big names in organics

Whether you're organically savvy, if you live in Seattle, you know about PCC and Whole Foods.

According to the company's website, PCC began in the Seattle area as a food-buying club for 15 families in 1953. Natural foods were sold, but it wasn't the primary focus.

In 1967, the original Renton location closed, and 340 households worked together to open a store in Madrona.

Two years later, a membership split occurred, and those members more interested in natural foods opened a storefront in the University District.

In 1971, a dues system was replaced by structured markup, and by 1975, membership had reached 3,466 and sales topped $1 million. When the store moved to Ravenna in 1976, membership and sales doubled.

In 1979, due to high demand, the board determined they needed more locations, and by 1990, PCC boasted six stores, sales exceeding $500,000 each week, more than 200 staff members and more than 35,000 active members.

The Fremont store opened in 1994, and by 1998, net earnings reached 2.21 percent of sales. The Issaquah store opened the following year, with the Ravenna location closing in 2001.

The new and improved Fremont store, the company's second-largest and usually highest-traffic location, opened in 2003.

Now, PCC is the largest consumer-owned natural-foods retailer in the country, with seven stores, annual sales of about $89 million and a membership of almost 40,000. The company has seen steady growth in the last several years, with a sales increase of $5 million between 2003 and 2004

Not bad for a small company, Crane said.

She attributes the natural-food-industry growth to increased awareness: People are more aware than ever of what they're putting into their bodies. She also gave a little credit to PCC's competitor, Whole Foods, for making organic eating more visible in the area.

Although Whole Foods didn't arrive in this corner of the country until 1999, "we knew that we always wanted to be here," said Ron Megahan, Northwest regional president for the company.

According to the company's website, Whole Foods opened its doors in 1980 in Austin, Texas, "when three local businessmen decided the natural-foods industry was ready for a supermarket format."

Now the largest natural-foods chain in the nation, Whole Foods gained a lot of its momentum through mergers and acquisitions with other natural-foods companies.

According to Megahan, the Seattle area is a great market for the company.

"People who live in the Pacific Northwest have a very active lifestyle," he said.

Local stores

Despite the introduction of Whole Foods and the growing success of PCC, the local organic markets and restaurants are enjoying the organic-food boom as well.

Supporting stores like his are "what community is all about," said Mark Smith, owner of Rainbow Grocery on Capitol Hill.

He said he tries not to compete with the larger chains, because he would lose; instead, he said, he relies on his local community, which is committed to not only eating healthy, but to supporting local businesses as well.

But while Smith and other local stores and restaurants are taking advantage of the organic-food boom, so are the larger grocery chains.

"The mass market is really taking that and running with that," he said. "It's definitely a different market place nowadays."

Even though business is good, Smith and others are facing a new challenge: competing with businesses that, in the past, haven't been competition. Not only does the local QFC carry the same type of products as Smith, for example, they may carry the same product purchased from the same local farm.

But even faced with these new challenges, business has been steadily growing over the last decade, he said, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

Business has also been good for Madison Market, said general manager Reese Williams.

Madison Market, formerly known as both the Capitol Hill Co-op and Central Co-op, has been around since 1978. It moved from its old location, at 12th Avenue and East Denny Way, to its new Central Area location at 160 E. Madison St., in 1999.

Since the move, business has grown steadily and beyond original expectations, Williams said. Since the move-in of Trader Joe's and the new Broadway QFC nearby, however, they have seen a slight dip in sales.

But "we feel that there is a huge market that we just haven't done enough outreach to," she said. The company hasn't had a lot of money for marketing in the past, she added, but it plans to implement some new programs soon and, as a result, expect to see sales increase.

Williams attributes the store's success, in part, to a loyal community and a great location.

She also credits technology and the media. Information about what's in our food is more readily available than ever, and as a result, people can see what they're really eating, she said.

As people educate themselves, she said, it's becoming more mainstream to know what goes into your food.

Studying organics

Not only are people educating themselves via the media and the Internet about organic and natural foods, many local folks are actually studying them.

Bastyr University in Kenmore teaches alternative medicine, which includes a nutrition program that focuses heavily on eating organic.

"That is a big part of what we teach," said Kathleen Warren, coordinator of media and community relations at Bastyr.

Although the university's peak in applicants occurred about two years ago, "there's definitely a large interest in this kind of program," Warren said.

She said organic is so big in the Seattle area because of the people who live here: The West Coast tends to be more politically liberal and on the forefront of environmental issues.

"The West Coast just has more forward-thinking people" than other parts of the country, she said. Warren is from Kansas, where there's a lot of agriculture but not much of it is organic.

She also thinks that "people are understanding more and more that there is a healing power to the food that we eat. It is the foundation of good health. Food is medicine; medicine is food."

And although it's expensive right now, Warren recognizes that if she - and others - support the organic industry, in the long run, prices will go down.

Next week: Meet the people who are eating, buying and growing organic foods.

Freelance writer Sarah Lorenzini may be reached through editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]